Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Boundary

  • Directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol
  • Screened at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival, April 1-7, 2013, Bangkok
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

The thorny topic of Thailand and Cambodia's border dispute around the ancient Preah Vihear temple is made much more interesting and easily digestible when it's set to an indie rock and electronica music soundtrack.

In Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum Pandinsoong), filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol approaches his subject with the artful aesthetic that's the calling card of other indie Thai filmmakers, with static camera set-ups, tracking shots in cars, slow-mo and blurs offering comment on the subject matter.

Known for his debut Weirdrosopher World, a documentary about Thai skateboarders, Nontawat apparently stumbled on the Boundary story by chance, at the New Year's Eve celebration at the end of 2010. By coincidence, it was at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection, which earlier in the year had been occupied by the "red shirt" protests that ended badly, with dozens fatally shot by government forces and arson attacks. There, at the New Year's countdown, he met a soldier on leave who was headed to his village in the Thai-Cambodian border area. Nontawat asked if he could tag along.

Politics are an unavoidable subtext to the images that the camera captures of a road trip from Bangkok to northeastern Thailand, accompanied at times by pulpy-sounding electronica beats.

A contentious topic for decades, Preah Vihear was awarded to Cambodia in a 1962 International Court of Justice verdict. The simmering border dispute boiled up again around 2008 when the Thai government at the time supported Cambodia's bid for Unesco World Heritage status for the temple. It would benefit both sides, and boost tourism was the reasoning. But the move riled the royalist "yellow shirts", who played the nationalist card and used Preah Vihear as a political cudgel. At issue is a disputed 4.6 square kilometer area around the temple that some contend is Thai soil. The yellow shirts conducted a campaign of activism that stirred things up and eventually resulted in the Thai and Cambodian sides sending in troops and lobbing shells at one another.

Popular YouTube footage from one of the firefights, looking like a grainy outtake from Full Metal Jacket, is included in Boundary.

Nontawat kept out of the line of fire, but visited spots that had been shelled. He accompanies Royal Thai Army officers has they inspect damage, including a rice granary that's had its roof smashed, a bullet-pocked house and a vehicle with holes in it that aren't decals. Another scene shows a school that had its roof damaged by the shelling.

His interviews with Thai residents reveal their upset about the hostilities at the border and being dragged into the dispute by the yeller shirts. They had enjoyed a good living off the tourism trade, and selling things on the Cambodian side of the border.

They also expressed indifference and perhaps disdain for the color-coded shirt movements. At dinner one night, it's pointed out the hostess is wearing yellow, while another at the table is in red. "I am wearing no shirt," the man of the house says. "I am too poor."

Given an "in" to Cambodia by one of his producers, French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou (Golden Slumbers), Nontawat also sought the other side of the story. Thai film expert Donsaron Kovitvanitcha is another producer, making Boundary a Thai-Cambodian production.

In his talk at Boundary's April 6 screening at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival (it had its Thai premiere on April 1 as Salaya Doc's opening film), Nontawat explained he had to tread lightly because Cambodians are generally suspicious of Thais. He didn't want to end up like pair of yellow-shirt activists who were jailed as spies (a topic not covered in the film). So he posed as a Chinese-American student and got his interviews, which are punctuated by a toddler boy bouncing up and down on his toy car until he falls on his rear and bursts into tears.

In the end, Nontawat finally visits the temple itself, which is dramatically situated right on the border, on the shoulder of a mountain, overlooking the Cambodian valley below. I went there 12 years ago, and the only way in was through Thailand on a chicken bus from Aranyaprathet. Now there's a sturdy road on the Cambodian side, which winds its way up the rugged slopes of the Dangrek Mountains, finally connecting the Angkorian treasure to the country that lays claim to it.

Boundary is one of those rare Thai political films. Most don't end up getting a general release, but Boundary might be okay because the opinion from the Thai side of the border tends jibe with that of the "red shirts" and the sympathies of the current government.

While the documentary makes things clear, the reality of the situation is cloudy. Just as Boundary is beginning to be screened in Thailand, the International Court of Justice is holding hearings about the Preah Vihear issue. Cambodia called for the hearing in the face of the yellow-shirt activism, and will ask that the ICJ reinterpret its 1962 ruling. For its part, the Thai side says there is no dispute and asks that the case be thrown out.

It's not expected to go well. Protests by the Thai interests are expected, adding much tension an already politically tense time.

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